Bruce Robison is country music's Mr. Anti-Formula: a go-to songwriter for top artists who can leverage their popularity to step outside of conventions. His songs are unusual only for the power of their true-to-life narratives and effortless melodies.
But it's not just Robison's songs that break with convention. Amazingly, he achieves his success while ignoring every rule laid down for songwriters who want to write hit country songs. He never moved to Nashville. He doesn't co-write. He doesn't produce demos to sound like country radio. He doesn't wrap every song with a message of hope or with a protagonist who, even when beset with tragedy or tough times, perseveres through inner strength. Robison writes songs about how humans are, not how we want them to be.
Meanwhile, the jackpot he picks up in Nashville funds his Austin-based recording career. Mixing honky-tonk two-steppers with Lone Star storytelling, Robison has a two-decade track record that ranks him as the heir to the shit-kicking, South Texas intellectual crowd that hero-worships Guy Clark, Joe Ely and Robert Earl Keen. All of which makes it more remarkable that his work ends up on country radio sung by George Strait, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, the Dixie Chicks and Lee Ann Womack, who cherry-pick from Robison's records to bolster their own reputations.
Several of the hits he's provided for others anchor Robison's retrospective collection, His Greatest, released through online stores Nov. 11 and going retail in early January. It's his second album in recent months, following September's The New World, which proved that Robison's stunning narratives and sad-sack wit remain sharp.
His Greatest doesn't recycle older recordings, but instead presents new versions of his best-loved tunes. Most of the originals are out of print, especially those recorded during Robison's stint under Nashville's Sony Music umbrella. Others come from here and there, such as a new take on "Angry All the Time," originally recorded as a duet with Robison's wife, the seductive Kelly Willis. Shortly afterward, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill turned it into a top country hit in their most emotionally layered duet.
The song typifies Robison's strengths: It's a harsh tale about a couple with children who are splitting, and its telling details are sensitive and devastating. In it, the male lead admits they've both been worn down by the routine of it all, but her inability to cope makes it harder on all of them. His exasperation showing, he sings in the chorus, "I don't know why you have to be angry all the time," and Robison's melody expertly turns the accusation into an aching plea. This personal drama, with its universal truths about how partners splinter under the weight of daily life, is the kind of relationship song country music should do best—but rarely does.
Robison finds a fresh angle with each song, whether it's how he describes the allure of someone you don't want to live without on "Wrapped," which Strait made into a hit, or the undercurrent of how two young, lonely outsiders fall in love through open-hearted letters written between a small town and a war zone in "Travelin' Soldier," a No. 1 hit for the Dixie Chicks.
Robison's take on these songs is indelibly low-key, partly because his own recordings now take place outside of the mechanized radio production line, but also because his stories cut deeper when the drama is presented with subtlety. In person, the lanky Robison strips away stagy pretense with a wry, gangly warmth, and the result reminds listeners of how rare it is to encounter someone who gets inside mundane realities with such clarity and poetry.